Why mothers should ignore the tyranny of 'breast is best'



21:22 GMT, 21 July 2012

My second baby is due any day now and it is hard to avoid a stream of news stories promoting the virtue of breastfeeding.

Almost daily I am told that it will make my child more intelligent and healthier and create a closer bond with me as mother.

I have even read a piece telling me that I will weigh a magnificent 2lbs less in my 50s than if I’d fed my baby formula milk.

Appetite for life: Writer and former model Rosie Mortimer with her son Johnny, 15 months

Appetite for life: Writer and former model Rosie Mortimer with her son Johnny, 15 months

Two days after the birth of our first son, Johnny, in 2010, my husband George, a musician, had to leave for a fortnight’s tour of Australia. To have our new family split up almost immediately was heartbreaking.

I stayed with my mother, whose father was dying of pneumonia in a nearby hospital. After seeing my grandfather for the final time, we went to see the midwife.

She said Johnny wasn’t getting enough milk and was slightly jaundiced. In the nicest possible way, she told me if I did not manage to feed him successfully he would have to be admitted back into hospital.

Perhaps it was the stress of everything that was going on, perhaps it was simply that I didn’t know what I was doing when breastfeeding, but driving back to my mother’s house I was inconsolable. I felt I had failed as a mother, that my baby was going to starve to death because of my inability to feed him.

With a lot of help from my midwife, I did manage to breastfeed successfully and continued to do so for the six months recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

But looking back now, I wonder why no one suggested feeding Johnny with formula milk. Why didn’t I even consider this option I’m pleased I did breastfeed, but it seems strange that it felt more of an obligation than a choice.

Painful and exhausting: A new mother can be left to feel like a milking machine with no other purpose in life

Painful and exhausting: A new mother can be left to feel like a milking machine with no other purpose in life

It is undeniable that breastfeeding is good for your baby, but is it right that we should feel so pressured to do it

There is a huge amount of information about the benefits of breastfeeding but practically no warning of the difficulties.

When a baby is wholly breastfed, the mother has to be available at all times to feed them to keep them alive. A bottle-fed baby can be fed by your husband at night. I did express milk for times when I had to go out, but keeping a regular supply ready for use at all hours is a logistical nightmare – it only keeps in the fridge for one day unless you freeze it.

With Johnny, the night feeds were every two hours for the first few months. I was also left exhausted by just producing milk, which uses huge amounts of energy.

I’d never imagined it was possible to feel as tired as I did during those first few months. I looked with envy at friends who’d chosen not to breastfeed and could have a lie-down while their husband heated up a bottle and fed the baby.

We are told that a huge bonus of breastfeeding is that any weight put on in pregnancy is lost very quickly. Breastfeeding is said to burn up to 500 calories per day, but it makes you ravenously hungry. Those 500 calories are easily made up for in just minutes standing in front of the fridge.

For the first few months after having Johnny, I lost weight very quickly and breastfeeding definitely helps your uterus to contract back to its normal size immediately after childbirth.

But after three or four months, my weight loss reached a plateau: The extra weight I had put on around my bottom and thighs was not shifting. Someone told me this is because my body was storing fat so I could feed my baby.

I was under the impression that if I breastfed I would miraculously return to a size eight within a couple of months, but that was definitely not the case. Once I felt at all able to deal with watching what I ate or exercising, it still took me more than a year to get near my original size.

As for the new study showing you might be 2lbs lighter in your 50s if you’ve breastfed, it seems ridiculous that anyone would factor it into their decision. You should breastfeed because you want to, because you feel it is right for you and your child, not because you believe it will miraculously give you a perfect figure.

So the notion that breastfeeding creates a perfect family in which mother and baby are blissfully happy and all is very natural and harmonious is misleading.

The reality is it is often painful and always exhausting. A new mother can be left to feel rather unattractive, like a milking machine with no other purpose in life.

As soon as I stopped breastfeeding, I finally felt normal again, as my body stopped making the hormones it produced during breastfeeding. I felt that I could get back on with life.

I also felt more relaxed leaving Johnny with other people for a couple of hours. I was no longer programmed to believe he could not survive if I wasn’t within hearing distance. And as soon as Johnny was weaned, he began sleeping through the night.

I plan to breastfeed our new baby for as long as I can, but I’ve decided this time I will feel no guilt. If for any reason I feel the need to stop or also use formula, I will do so. I’ve promised myself I will not feel that I am neglecting my child if breastfeeding becomes too much for me.

At a time when women are so pressurised to be perfect mothers and wives as well as having a career, do we really need to add to this the guilt of not doing the right thing for our babies

My mother boasts she breastfeed me and my sister Emily for a couple of weeks while ash from her cigarettes fell on our heads. She almost immediately weaned us onto bottles.

It isn’t an approach the WHO would approve, but my sister and I have been happy, healthy and allergy-free and count our mother as one of our best friends. Bottle feeding isn’t the end of the world.